How to react when it goes wrong


Firstly, the England Rugby Team were “befuddled” by the tactics used by their Italian opponents and had to wait to escape to the safety of the dressing room, and their coaches’ advice, at half time, to work out a solution. Later millions of people watch the TV in horror, as the organisers of the Oscars managed to announce the wrong winner of the Best Picture award. A series of errors and a failure to act led to a scene where the producers of La La Land, part way through their acceptance speech, were interrupted and asked to announce that the real winners were Moonlight.

These examples highlight what can happen when things don’t go to plan.

Such situations can lead to panic, where our brains, or at least the higher brain functions of planning and problem solving, effectively shut down in favour of our more reactive reptilian brain. We see this in our reactions – our instinctive responses to stressful situations that can manifest in 1 of 3 ways:

You can freeze. This is the do nothing response or continue as if nothing has happened. The England Rugby team continued playing with the same tactics, because it’s what they knew.

You fight. You can start shouting or making impulsive decisions, trying anything that may or may not work. This is the let’s try anything approach that occurs when you run out of ideas!

You take flight. You can run away and hide, let others make the decisions for you, whilst you prepare your defence, try and blame others or focus on something else.

Whilst being aware of your likely response is useful knowledge, the key to responding effectively is being able to pause and shift out of instinctively reacting, and back into problem solving and planning mode. Organisations that have experience of managing in a crisis, use simple Mantras to stimulate thinking and taking action. For example, NASA uses Warn, Gather, Work (the problem); ensuring they get the people with the right knowledge to where they need to be to find solutions. Airline pilots are trained in Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. In both cases, these Mantras trigger off a series of simple actions and questions that act to kick-start the brain into thinking again. By focussing on a process, and remaining curious people are less likely to think about possible outcomes, start catastrophising and panic.


Communication is also key.

During stressful situations people are likely to become self-oriented, reducing their ability to trust what they are being told, and become more pessimistic. A simple process to follow is CAP:

Concern – Show concern for those people effected, particularly if people have been hurt. This is about putting first things first, but also demonstrating to listeners that you remain open to others’ needs and not just your own self-preservation.

Action – Specify the actions that you or your organisation will take to deal with the problem and mitigate the impact. Again, this demonstrates your capacity to think (and lead) during the crisis. Listeners, often affected by the crisis themselves will want to hear what they need to do.

Perspective – Put the event in the context of the bigger picture. Crises are usually transient and people need to hear the reality as well as a message of hope. Planes crash, but it’s still the safest form of transport.

In short, acting properly when things go wrong is about being prepared to shift your thinking back into curious, and not remain in furious. Or as Astronaut Mark Watney said at the end of The Martian,

“At some point everything is going to go south on you. It’s space, it does not cooperate… and you can either accept your fate or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You solve one problem. Then you solve the next one, and the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”